California’s natural beauty and balmy climate are the envy of every state. Yet a strange thing has happened over the last two years: for the first time in state history, California has begun to shrink.
You wouldn’t know it from Governor Gavin Newsom’s air of public confidence. In the last few weeks, Newsom accepted a national award for education transformation and ran political ads to warn Floridians that their freedom is under attack. In both cases, he offered California’s progressive model as the right fit to reform the rest of America.
But his proud rhetoric doesn’t match California’s declining reality. Americans are voting with their feet to reject Newsom’s California model and heading to the very states that he criticizes.
The central plank of Newsom’s education transformation has been, in essence, to leave poor kids behind. California ranked last of all states in reopening schools after the pandemic, and the poor suffered the most. A study by Harvard economists finds that in states like California, where remote instruction was more common during the pandemic, high-poverty schools spent an additional nine weeks in remote instruction compared with low-poverty schools. In contrast, states like Florida and Texas had much lower rates of remote instruction, and smaller differences in its overall use between high- and low-poverty districts.
Brookings researchers have also demonstrated how school closings and remote learning hurt poor students. They showed that national “test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math and 15% in reading.” The gap grew fastest in California.
Instead of a national model, Newsom’s California is a national warning of what happens when the progressive education establishment captures a state.
The political ads Newsom ran in Florida reveal perhaps an even greater disconnect between his rhetoric and California’s reality. Newsom warned Floridians that freedom “is under attack in your state,” and urged Florida residents to “join the fight, or join us in California where we still believe in freedom.” Newsom’s messaging turns gaslighting into a political strategy. If California believes in freedom, it has an odd way of showing it. After years of mask mandates, school closures, and pervasive lockdowns, Californians must be wondering what limits exist on state government intrusion into their lives. Nonetheless, they can’t help but notice the newfound freedoms that criminals and street homeless have enjoyed in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the rule of law has eroded at the hands of activist district attorneys.
Meantime, Californians who vote with their feet are fleeing to Florida in record numbers. From 2010 to 2018, California lost an average of 1,000 people to Florida per year, according to IRS taxpayer migration data. Then, from 2018 to 2019, California lost 4,800 residents to Florida. And from 2019 to 2020—the first IRS data that cover the early pandemic months—California lost 11,500 residents to Florida.
California’s outmigrants are bringing lots of income with them. The state shed an average of $270 million of annual income to Florida from 2010 to 2018. The annual loss jumped to $1.2 billion from 2018 to 2019, and then to $2 billion in 2019–2020. California’s losses, and Florida’s gains, have almost certainly accelerated in the intervening years. And Florida is not the only state picking up California exiles. The Golden State’s losses are at or near record levels with other states, too—in particular, states like Texas that Newsom targets with criticism.
Newsom wants Americans to believe that he has it figured out in California, and that the new American model for freedom is a progressive one. Yet his state’s aggressive population pivot has coincided almost precisely with his tenure as governor, making Newsom the first California leader to preside over a shrinking state rather than a growing one.
No amount of political rhetoric can mask California’s reality under Governor Newsom. Low-income students are being left behind, the rule of law is eroding, and residents are leaving in record numbers. The many former Californians watching Newsom’s ads in Texas and in Florida can only marvel at the hubris of the man.
Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images